Olympic Park: Powerful Bombs Make for Terror and Panic

This week we leave the mountains of southwestern Utah, where last week we learned about the massacre at Mountain Meadows. Now we focus our gaze on Atlanta, Georgia. It was there, in 1996 that powerful pipe bombs exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park. Miraculously, the blast only killed one person (another died of a heart attack). The low death toll was because of the heroic actions of security guard Richard Jewell. Sadly, the FBI initially suspected Jewell and the media vilified him, but the real bomber was Eric Rudolph.

Centennial Olympic Park

Summer of 1996 saw the Olympic Games came to Atlanta, Georgia. As part of the millions spent on infrastructure improvements, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games created a 22-acre park. The ACOG envisioned the park, named Centennial Olympic Park, as the “town square” of the Olympics.

Centennial Olympic Park in 2011 (Flikr: Olympic Park Panorama by Veggiefrog)

On July 27, 1996, thousands of people gathered in the park for a late-night concert by Jack Mack and the Heart Attack.

Bombs in Olympic Park

Shortly after midnight, someone planted a military field pack under a bench near the concert’s sound tower. The pack contained three bombs consisting of nitroglycerine dynamite and a pipe filled with smokeless powder, surrounded by 3-inch masonry nails. The pack contained steel plates intended to focus the force of the bombs in a specific direction. When the bombs exploded, the nails would act as shrapnel, ripping into anyone and anything nearby.

Olympic Park security guard Richard Jewell noticed the field pack under a bench leaning against the 40-foot-tall NBC sound tower. He alerted agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to the suspicious package. The GBI in turn called in the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF). As the bomb squad prepared to investigate, Jewell and other security guards began clearing the area.

Richard Jewell
Richard Jewell

Two to three minutes into the evacuation, and while it was still underway, the bombs exploded. However, because security personnel had started moving spectators away from the area, the human damage was much less than it could have been. There was only one fatality from the explosion. Forty-four-year-old Alice Hawthorne died when a masonry nail pierced her skull. Another man, 40-year-old Melih Uzunyol died of a heart attack while running to the scene. Uzunyol was a cameraman for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation.

Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture
Shrapnel damage (R) to Olympic Park sculpture

Richard Jewell Falsely Suspected

Security guard Richard Jewell’s actions in discovering the bomb and starting to evacuate the area probably saved many lives. Yet before long, the hero came under suspicion of setting the bombs. Although the FBI never arrested Jewell, they identified him as a person of interest and searched his home. Agents also dug extensively into Jewell’s background. Eventually, though, it became clear that Jewell had nothing to do with the bombings.

Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)
Bomb damage to the NBC sound tower at Olympic Park (Don Ramsey Logan)

After clearing Jewell, the FBI had little to go on until the following year. Then additional bombings in Georgia and Alabama made it clear that the real Olympic Park bomber was still active.

The bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama killed police officer Robert Sanderson and seriously injured nurse Emily Lyons. However, Lyons was able to give investigators a partial license plate number, which led them to identify Eric Robert Rudolph as their suspect.

Olympic Park Bombing Solved

Eric Rudolph went into hiding, dodging law enforcement for more than five years. He made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in 1998 with a $1 million reward offered

FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph
FBI wanted poster for Eric Rudolph

On May 31, 2003, at 4:00 a.m., rookie Murphy, North Carolina police officer Jeffrey Postell was on routine patrol. Postell saw what he though was a burglar prowling around behind a Save-A-Lot grocery store. It was Eric Rudolph, foraging for food in the store’s dumpster.

On April 8, government officials announced that Rudolph would plead guilty to four bombings, including the one at Centennial Olympic Park. Rudolph’s rabid anti-abortion and anti-gay views motivated the bombings. His confession formally exonerated Richard Jewell.

Epilogue

Richard Jewell did achieve his goal of becoming a police officer and later worked as a deputy sheriff. He died at age 44 on August 29, 2007, of complications from diabetes.

Eric Rudolph is serving four consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole at the ADX Florence supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. He still manages to have vitriolic screeds published through ultra-right-wing outlets.

Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph
Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph

Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwin published a book on the case, The Suspect, in 2019. That year also saw the release of Richard Jewell, a biopic about the hero security guard.

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